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A Day in Portland (April 20: Duck Fat, 555)

youngho | May 2, 2008 07:45 PM

Please pardon any lapses of memory, since it's been a few busy weeks, as well as my poor writing and sense of taste and smell.

My wife and I drove up from Boston to Portland on Sunday, April 20th, just before Patriot's Day. We'd only been once before, about 7 years ago, at which time we were enchanted by the public market, which we were quite saddened to learn had moved to a much smaller place. On that Sunday, we arrived around noon and ate lunch at Duck Fat, where I had the daily special pork loin sandwich and my wife the regular duck confit sandwich, accompanied by a roasted beet salad, a large order of the renowned Belgian frites with the truffle ketchup, a strawberry milk shake, and a homemade ginger brew soda. All in all, quite tasty, but I was happy that Cambridge still has the All-Star Sandwich Bar. If I had to offer any critiques, it would be that the portions were perhaps a little small and that the ketchup was heavy on the truffle oil for our tastes. I would put the frites on my short list for favorite fries. I had only had fries cooked in duck fat twice before, both times at the same place (La Tupina in Bordeaux, which were a larger cut and had a rather more unctuous mouth feel, though at the expense of crispness), and the "damn good fries" at East Coast Grill and its little sister restaurant All-Star are quite good. Our other favorite fries in the Boston area include those at Brasserie Jo and Aquitaine. We have to try the ones at Les Zygomates.

We walked around for the next 5 hrs but belatedly realized that Portland would close down early, so I called 555, where I had made reservations for the chef's tasting menu, and they were quite gracious about accomodating us an hour ahead of our scheduled reservation. We still had time to kill, so grabbed drinks and some oysters at a seafood place across and a little down from Gilbert's Chowder House while waiting. We didn't tell anyone we preferred the ones from Washington (creamier, with some cucumber notes) to the local Winter Bay ones (rather salty/briny, though not as metallic-tasting as Malpeques).

At 555, we had the pleasure of sitting upstairs, alone for nearly half of our meal, with a diagonal view into the kitchen. We were surprised at how small it was, seemingly fitting 5-6 chefs and cooks standing shoulder-to-shoulder, with a counter running along one side and the range, grill, and other hot stations on the other. There is a separate pastry kitchen. We thought we recognized Chef Steve Corry from his picture supervising the restaurant, with who must have been his thoroughly adorable wife Michele Corry running the front of house. The chef's tasting menu, which must be reserved at least 24 hrs in advance, ran us $65 per person. I had the accompanying wines for $35, and my wife half-pours of the same for $20. I have to say that the pours were extremely generous, since I would have estimated the half-pours at nearly 6 oz, which seems to be a standard pour for many restaurants. Thus, the markup appears to be on the very reasonable side, based on a little bit of Internet searching. We were provided with a printed copy of the tasting menu, so the first sentence of each course basically recapitulates the menu text.

We were given an amuse bouche of a tiny lobster sandwich, which appeared to be a bit of claw meat with a little mayo (flavored with tarragon?), served between two tiny toasted bits of bread. Great Maine starter. In terms of the tasting menu itself, the first course was a smoked, wild-caught bluefish, accompanied by pickled beech mushrooms, brown butter vinaigrette, and frisee-radish salad. Neither my wife nor I typically order bluefish, finding it to be a little oily for our tastes, not to mention rather strong-tasting when it's not extremely fresh. However, this bluefish, served flaked, was perfectly balanced by the smokiness and a little acidity from vinegar and perhaps a touch off mustard. This was served with a 2207 Aveleda vino verde from Portugal, which was a crisp, slightly sparkling white wine with pronounced citrus and apple smells and flavors. Here, the course was unified by the acidity of each component (the bluefish, the pickled mushrooms, the frisee salad with the vinaigrette, and the wine), yet diversified by the variety of flavors (the smokiness and slight oiliness of the bluefish, the umami of the mushrooms, the bitterness of the frisee, and the relative fruitness of the wine).

The second course was a pan-seared red mulllet, with fingerling potato salad, parsley emulsion, and shaved botarga. This was accompanied by a 2006 McManis chardonnay from River Junction, California. The mullet was perfectly seasoned, almost too much salt but then it would be balanced by the warm potato salad, with a beautiful sear. We hadn't had botarga before, which apparently is pressed and dried mullet roe, so we felt as though we were violating some sort of religious edict, but it added a subtle, slightly salty but luxurious mouth feel. My wife is not a huge California chardonnay fan, but this was light enough on the oak and lees that it wasn't too vanilla-y or creamy. I think the McManis notes about pear and pineapple were pretty accurate.

The third course was a grilled lamb rib chop, with pistachio sultana couscous, garlic-kissed spring asparagus, and a rich syrah reduction. This was accompanied by a 2004 Bonny Doon "Le Pousseur" syrah from the central coast of California. The rib chop (two, really) were nicely grilled, though mine was the tiniest bit fatty. I generally avoid couscous, too often finding it dry or bland or both, but this was fluffy and light, with the pistachio adding loads of nutty flavor. Spring, of course, is the time for asparagus. The syrah started off promisingly with a complex mix of dark fruits and black pepper, but unfortunately, I found it to become distractingly overladen with tobacco notes after about 20 minutes or so. However, I think I am more sensitive to tobacco. In any case, apparently this is a new wine for the restaurant, and our opinions on it were sought.

The fourth course was a small ham-and-cheese sandwich, made with Silvery Moon Creamery brie, shaved country ham, and a crispy chive popover. I have to admit that I have difficulty telling apart different bries once they're melted, and I'd had a bit of wine at this point. Nevertheless, the popover was indeed crispy, with a nice combination of creaminess from the brie, umami and a little smoke from the ham, and a bit of "green" flavor from the chives.

Lastly, we had a caramelized "peanut" butter cup, with dark chocolate-spiced banana ice cream. The latter would actually be better described as banana-spiced dark chocolate ice cream. I don't know why the word "peanut" is in quotes. Anyway, the dessert was quite dark but delicious with coffee, since I wasn't able to finish the last wine.

All in all, a wonderfully relaxing day in Portland. We look forward to returning and trying other places like Hugo's (closed for renovations) or Fore Street Grill, but we would like to come back to 555 for delicious-looking items like the grilled caesar, diver scallops, or crab risotto. It's been my experience with several tasting menus that I often prefer the appetizer-type courses to the principal ones, and here, I do have to admit that we were particularly taken with the first two here. If they ever appear on the regular menu, I would certainly suggest trying them. I should also mention that the service was excellent, both prompt and attentive, with every effort to run the food from the pass to the table as quickly as possible.

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